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Saturday, December 17, 2011
Football journey: James Ihedigbo

By Mike Reiss

Stew Milne/US PresswirePatriots safety James Ihedigbo.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When safety James Ihedigbo was signed by the Patriots on Aug. 19 this year, training camp was nearing its end and he was considered a longshot to earn a roster spot.

But Ihedigbo made a strong impression to stick with the team, and in many ways, that has been the story of his entire football career.

The 28-year-old wasn’t a highly touted prospect coming out of Amherst (Mass.) Regional High School. Ditto for his when his college career at UMass ended and he set his sights on the NFL.

Little has come easy for Ihedigbo, who shared his “football journey” with ESPNBoston.com this week:

When he first started playing football & what positions: “Pop Warner. I was 6 years old. Running back and safety.”

Why he went out for football: “I started playing soccer. My friends at the time started getting into football, and asked me to play. At first, my parents were like ‘No, keep playing soccer. You’re good at it.’ I eventually switched over and the rest is history.”

Favorite teams growing up: “Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and the Patriots.”

Favorite players growing up: “Early as a kid, it was Emmitt Smith. Then Brian Dawkins.”

Top memories of high school football at Amherst Regional: “Playing in a state championship. I had a big run up the middle and it ended up being one of my first newspaper clippings [in the Daily Hampshire Gazette]. My mom still has it, me breaking a tackle.”

Fond recollections of high school football & friends: “Just so much fun. The brotherhood of it. You’re playing with a great group of guys who are still best friends to this day – Marcus Williams, Mike Ononibaku. They were great runners, together they almost rushed for 2,000 yards, and I ran for 1,100.”

AP Photo/Lisa PooleIhedigbo at UMass.
Why he attended UMass-Amherst: “UMass was one of the schools that wanted to give me a chance. Holy Cross did, too. Other schools wanted me to walk on, but I was like ‘If I’m going to walk-on, why not be in my hometown?’ I made the best of it.”

Top memories of UMass: “Wow, so many. So many. I’d have to say one memory was against Holy Cross. I came off the edge on a blitz, sacked the quarterback, and kind of did a tuck-and-roll and stood up. I didn’t celebrate or anything, but just looked at the crowd. It was a key play in the game and the crowd was going crazy. I had a girl come up to me after the game and she said, ‘I’ve never been to a football game before, but that play gave me goosebumps because it was so intense.'”

Favorite part of the UMass experience: “Being a part of the ’06 team that made a run to the national championship. There was a stat [on TV] when Montana was playing the other weekend, and it was that they were 18-1 in the month of December at home. We gave them that one loss in ’06. You don’t forget those memories.”

Expectations entering the NFL: “My expectations were just to do my best. You knew the combines were coming up, so you focus on training your best to put forth your best performance. I took a visit to Cincinnati [with the Bengals] and they were really interested in me. I thought being drafted was a possibility by them, and they told me they would take me in one of the later rounds, sixth or seventh. Then that didn’t happen. I was disappointed, but it wasn’t the end of the world. In the end, it didn’t matter to me how I got in, just that I got in. I was determined to get my foot in the door.”

How he landed with the Jets: “They brought me in to fill-in at their rookie minicamp. They already had five or six safeties at the time, so I was just an extra guy. I ended up pulling my hamstring during the minicamp. It was bad and I could barely run. I kept doing drills and everything, and I think they saw my passion and desire for the game and decided to offer me [a contract].”

Ed Mulholland/US PresswireIhedigbo with the Jets.
Top memories with the Jets (2007-2010): “Playing in the AFC Championship. We did it back-to-back years. You’re in the week of practice and you’re saying, ‘Wow, we’re one game away from the Super Bowl.’ It’s almost surreal. You’re that much more focused. Everyone is that much more driven to the cause at hand. Everything is enhanced. Everyone is that much more alert during the games. You study film that much more, knowing you’re that much closer to the ultimate goal. There is a lot you can learn from defeat and losing. I remember after the Indianapolis game, sitting on the bench with David Harris as the confetti came down. We looked at each other and said, ‘Not again. We don’t want to feel this again.' Then we make it to Pittsburgh, and we had the feeling we were the better team, having beaten them earlier in the year. We came up short again. It was a difficult thing to swallow, but there are still a lot of good things that come of it; the experience of playing in big games.”

Thoughts on not getting tendered a contract by the Jets after ’10 season: “It was really tough. I had a relationship with the coaching staff and [general manager] Mike Tannenbaum, he’s a UMass guy as well. He gave me a chance. When he brought me in [at the start], he said, ‘You’re a UMass guy, I want to look out for you and give you a chance. Prove to me that I’m right.’ Having that, understanding that, and working to prove him right – and getting to where we did as a team and them seeing my progress as a player, getting better and better each year – that they wanted to cut ties and go in a different direction was shocking to me and my family. Then again, it was still motivation. I came here and Bill [Belichick] gave me a chance, and saw something in me that was worthy of playing on this defense. I took it and now I’m looking to really excel. I’m blessed, with the opportunities I’ve been given and making the best of it.”

Describing life as a Patriot after signing a one-year deal with the team in training camp: “Hard-working, truly. I’ve never been part of a team where you work this hard. But it also proves there is a reward. When you win, and you win this consistently, it’s not by chance. Everything you put in is what you get out. We work really hard here and it shows on Sundays.”

Role models in his life: “I really look up to my mom, Rose Ihedigbo. She never missed any one of my football games. From when I was 6, she drove me to every Pop Warner game; in college, she traveled to every away game. Even now that I’m in the NFL, she comes to every game. She doesn’t miss one. Her dedication to me, that helps motivate me, and just her work ethic in general.”

Summing up his football journey: “I’m a firm believer in God’s work in my life. I just have to say it’s a favor of God. He’s opened up doors for me and I couldn’t have drawn up a better story. I couldn’t even have dreamed of it being the way it is. It’s some type of divine intervention that I’ve had the doors open with these opportunities, and excelled. A lot of people complain and say ‘I’m never going to get my chance.’ While they’re saying that, their chance is passing them by and they don’t even realize it. So it’s just always being alert to seize the opportunity that was given to me.”